By: Mark Hinson
December 7, 2018
Do not ask choir master Vincent “Shimmy” Jiyane about famous folks the Soweto Gospel Choir has worked with because, well, he has the answers.
So far, the choir has collaborated with super-group U2, the funk-rock outfit Red Hot Chili Peppers, the hit-making Queen, fellow South African singing group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, jazz-popster Hugh Masekela, Motown legend Diana Ross, Pearl Jam vocalist Eddie Vedder, the multi-talented John Legend and “First Lady of Soul” Aretha Franklin, who died this year.
“The day I saw her, I had goosebumps,” Jiyane, 45, said of Franklin. “She came with all of her heart. My mother used to listened to her all the time in South Africa. Miss Franklin treated us like a mother.”
Find out if any parental feelings stir when the Grammy Award-winning Soweto Gospel Choir performs in Tallahassee for the first time at Opening Nights. The first half of the show will feature traditional repertoire and, after intermission, there will be dancing, American spirituals and Christmas carols. The concert in Ruby Diamond Concert Hall is titled “Songs of the Free.”
“Our Tallahassee audience can expect to be transported by the consummate energy exuded by the group vocally, instrumentally and through their movement,” said Michael Blachly, who is the director of Opening Nights. “Their voices soar with beauty, harmony and power. It’s a performance of pure, unadulterated joy.”
Blachly got to know Jiyane and the Soweto Gospel Choir during his tenure as director of University of Florida Performing Arts in Gainesville for 15 years. The choir was a hit in Hogtown.
“This was evidenced by audience reactions following the six performances given in Gainesville,” Blachly said.
Blachly heard more than once: “That was incredible…you have to bring them back.”
When he got the job in Tallahassee at Opening Nights in late 2017, one of his first calls was to the Soweto Gospel Choir.
Nelson Mandela is the linchpin
In November 2002, the Soweto Gospel Choir was started with Jiyane as a founding member. They wanted to showcase all of South Africa, which is the 25th largest country in the world when it comes to area and takes up plenty of room. A lot goes on at the southern tip of Africa — which is a continent, by the way.
“Every culture has its own dances, sings its own songs,” Jiyane said during a phone chat from the road. “People are not aware of all the music we have — reggae, pop, hip-hop, traditional. We wanted a showcase for different tribes and the religions.”
During the fall of 2006, the Soweto Gospel Choir got international attention after being invited to perform at the 75th birthday of cleric Desmond Tutu. The audience included Nelson Mandela, who is often called the George Washington of South Africa.
“Awww, I am still shaking for meeting him (Mandela),” Jiyane said. “You know when you meet him you will not wash that hand for a week. Nelson Mandela is the reason we founded the Soweto Choir. He is our icon.”
Mandela is the anti-apartheid activist who was freed from prison after many years in 1989. He became president of South Africa in 1994, ending years of white domination in government. Paul Simon helped kick down barriers — and caught a lot of flak in the process — when he used South African musicians on his Grammy Award-winning album called “Graceland” in 1986, including Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
“Paul Simon sent a message to the world, that is when people opened their eyes,” Jiyane said. “We are here because of Ladysmith. They paved the way.”
Everything took an uptick in 2008 when the singers recorded with Peter Gabriel for the song “Down to Earth,” penned by Gabriel and Thomas Newman (who wrote the theme of TV’s “Six Feet Under”). The song won a Grammy Award for Best Movie Song and was nominated for an Oscar for the Pixar movie “WALL-E.” The Soweto Gospel Choir became the first South Africans to perform at the 81st Academy Awards ceremony.
“We met Peter Gabriel in Cape Town and the relationship just grew,” Jiyane said. “Being nominated with him was a great moment.”
This year, they worked with Chance The Rapper. Talk about range.
“We now drive cars and own houses, so we have changed since we started,” Jiyane said and laughed. “I like to say we have matured.”
Thanksgiving for South Africans
There is also a personal connection between the Soweto Gospel Choir and Blachly.
“(My wife) and I hosted them in our home for receptions around each visit,” Blachly said. “The first time that they were in our house they thanked us for our hospitality by presenting an a cappella number of praise and appreciation.”
As Judy, Blachly’s spouse, said, “I’m pretty sure our house just levitated.”
Ten years ago, the Soweto Gospel Choir visited Florida around Thanksgiving time. It was a celebration of turkey and stuffing that included nearly 60 people.
“Following dinner, we went out on the deck and they performed various indigenous anthems from the different countries represented in the group,” Blachly said. “Our board then responded with the national anthem and everyone got into the rhythm of the number and started swaying back and forth. The next thing that happened was our deck collapsing under the weight and the up and down rhythmic movement to the music.”
Everybody lived and chuckled about it.
“Oh, yes, I remember that,” Jiyane said and laughed. “It was a great time.”